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Why Are So Many Men Checking Out of Society?
Over on YouTube, Chris Williamson and Nicholas Eberstadt had a discussion a few days ago about why so many men are checking out of society:
They made some interesting points in the video about how men have retreated from relationships, friendships, and society in general and noted that 50% of men between 18-30 aren’t looking for casual or long-term relationships. However, I didn’t think they had a lot of great insight into what was going on.
What I would tell you is that there are three interlocking factors that are making life particularly difficult for young men.
The first one is the disconnected nature of modern society. The video we’re talking about discusses, “men checking out of society,” but that presupposes they were in society to begin with. Theoretically, we’re all in society, but as a practical matter, a lot of men aren’t a part of society in any sort of meaningful way once they leave school. They have a crummy job they don’t care about. They don’t really know their neighbors (this is more common in cities than in rural areas). They don’t go to church. They’ve never been in the military. They’re not patriotic because it was never taught to them. They don’t really have much of a social group in the real world that they hang out with because their socializing is done on the Internet and unfortunately, online connections tend to be much shallower and more tenuous than real-world friendships. Online dating has chewed them up, spit them out and the only female company they keep is pornography and maybe a few conversations with some nice waitress or girl at work.
Compare this to many Americans in past generations. They mostly lived in smaller towns and knew their neighbors. In fact, they might have helped them raise a barn or fed their cows while they were out of town. They went to church every Sunday. Patriotism was taught to them in school and around the table by their mom and dad. There was a lot less to do, but a lot of it involved other people. Dances. Hunting. Sports. When I was a teenager, for example, a lot of kids my age in my town would go to a particular parking lot and just hang out to chat for hours every weekend. Social groups like bowling clubs, the Elks, Freemasons, and Kiwanis were much more prevalent. For previous generations of Americans, there was just a lot more of a sense of connection to society because without an online world to distract people, they were much more immersed in different types of real-world connections than people are today.
Granted, there have always been isolationists and there are still plenty of people out there deeply connected to the society around them. They’re deacons at the church, volunteering to help coach their kid’s baseball team, going to PTA meetings, and taking their neighbors some food when they have a death in the family. However, to many young men, that sounds like a lifestyle that’s alien to them. Particularly since there may seem to be much easier, more entertaining options.
This brings us to the 2nd factor, which is something Chris Williamson alluded to briefly in the video. Modern men have a virtually unlimited number of ultimately meaningless, but pleasurable ways to distract themselves. Like what? Alcohol. Drugs. Smoking. Vaping. Porn. Binge-eating. Gambling. Video games. Reading fiction. Movies. Binge-watching TV series. Social media. One thing you may notice about all these activities is that although some of them may require other people to participate, you can do all of them while you are sitting in your own living room in your underwear.
The tragedy of these “cheap dopamine” activities is that as a group, they can be so addictive, pleasurable, and time-consuming that men can spend years of their life on them and then wake up one day, as if from a dream, to realize that they’re far behind their peers. This ties into the third factor, which is something I hear very few people talk about, but you can see the subtle signs of it everywhere. It’s the competitiveness of modern society.
To understand why this matters, we need to go back to an outstanding quote from Jack Donavan:
"Masculinity is tragic. Masculinity is a lifelong struggle; a gauntlet run against nature and other men to demonstrate virility and prove one’s worthiness as a man in the eyes of other men. Masculinity is a challenge to honor that ends only in death - a challenge to win coupled with a guarantee that, eventually, even the best man will lose." — Jack Donavan
Women are loved for who they are, but men? Unless you’re talking about your parents, grandparents, siblings, or your children, if you are a man you need to produce to be loved. There are a lot of ways to earn the respect of men and the admiration of women, but the vast majority of them involve being excellent at something, and in the modern world, that’s a lot tougher than it used to be. Don’t get me wrong. Men from past generations had much more difficult lives than men today. In most cases, they had to work harder to get less, which is certainly a big negative. On the other hand, what was expected of a man was far simpler, easier to understand, and orders of magnitude easier to achieve.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean.
First of all, think of what you consider to be an extremely fit, athletic, muscular man. The first one that comes to mind for a lot of people might be, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
There are bigger, stronger, more cut and muscular guys, but if you want to see what most people would consider “peak fitness” today, there it is.
On the other hand, here’s what “peak fitness” looked like in the thirties. That’s stud athlete and “Tarzan” star Johnny Weissmuller, who could have fairly been considered the equivalent of “The Rock” back then.
Today, Johnny Weissmuller, who had 5 gold medals in swimming by the way, looks like a fairly fit normal guy. He would have trouble building a career as a fitness influencer on Instagram with a body like that.
What about work? There was a time when the person who owned the grocery or hardware store in a small town might be considered the most prosperous man people knew within 50 miles. Today? Everyone can reel off the names of billionaires like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg.
Incidentally, speaking of building a business, it’s certainly still doable, but if it’s highly profitable, you’re likely to be going toe-to-toe with a billion-dollar business. Want to do what Ray Kroc did with McDonald’s or Sam Walton did with Walmart? It’s not impossible, but you’re going to have to get it off the ground while competing with those companies and their competitors that have decades of experience, cheaper products, and that measure things so completely that they can tell the impact on sales of changing the music or color of the walls in their stores.
How about marriage? That is “the bedrock of society,” right? Most people have either blocked out or are just unaware of how much expectations of men have increased over the years, even as men face a much greater risk of being wiped out via divorce than in previous generations:
“Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, children, property, and respectability—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends, trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot. The human imagination has conjured up a new Olympus: that love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh-so-exciting, for the long haul, with one person. And the long haul keeps getting longer.” – Esther Perel
“Twenty years ago, a father was barred from most delivery rooms. Now he is expected. A family man was basically an absentee father. Today a family man is expected to be a working father. Twenty years ago, millions of married women didn’t think beyond “giving a man sex.” Today sex is also for women. Twenty years ago, a woman may not have known what an orgasm was. Today she expects multiple orgasms, simultaneous orgasms, sensitivity, and sensuality. Expectations have changed. And in the process, yesterday’s bonus can become today’s disappointment.” – Warren Farrell
Whether you’re talking about physiques, marriage, becoming financially successful, or standing out in any way whatsoever, the competition today is so ferocious that a lot of men undoubtedly say, “Why bother?” Is that the “right” attitude to take? I’d say, “Absolutely not.” A big part of being happy is growth and if you just give up on it, you can only distract yourself with cheap dopamine for so long before you start to hate your life. Besides, if you’re going to be passing time in your life doing something, you will ultimately get far more satisfaction out of improving, growing, becoming better, and adding to society than turning into a potato in your living room. That’s not always apparent to young men because it’s a little like climbing a mountain. The higher you get, the more completely you see all the options you have that you were unaware of at the ground level. That’s why you should try, why you should be a part of society, and why you should climb.
Unfortunately, while that is good advice for the individual, it’s hard to know if society can fix these structural problems that are confronting men. How do we get men more involved in society? How do we give them more ways to feel genuinely productive and relevant? How do we make it easier for men to succeed and thrive? Until we have answers to those questions, expect the number of men checking out of society to continue to accelerate.